Blood and money

 

For many local pro boxers, taking one on the chin is a price worth paying in their bid for fame and glory. For others, it's a desperate attempt to better a life already on the ropes.

 

It's a Friday night at the Civic Auditorium in downtown San Jose. In the center of the arena, a boxing ring is bathed in light. In the ring, two wiry, nearly naked bodies lean against each other, their eyes seemingly empty of thoughts and emotions, unrelentingly locked on each other. Gloved fists pump furiously, heads slip left and right, feet shuffle to an unheard rhythm.

Glove meets jaw and one pair of eyes rolls and, after an agonizing moment, stabilize. Around the ring, in the rows of folding chain, there's a hint of a crowd -- perhaps 6OO people -- mostly men, mostly Latino, mostly clad in jeans and t-shirts. But between the batches of spectators, there are as many empty chairs as full ones, and the seats around the edge of the arena -- the cheap seats -- are mostly empty. The crowd cheers as the two furiously flail at each other -- shouting approval with every blow that connects, groaning in sympathy as a body blow doubles over one of the fighters.

 

The bell clangs to end the round and, seemingly from thin air, a top-heavy woman appears in a satin bikini and struts around the ring in a pair of four-inch heels, carrying a sign above her head to announce round four. There are a few hoots and whistles and with the bell, the fighters rise from their corners. One of them comes out with a wad of ointment over his eye. He fights somewhat desperately, scores with a few combinations and is rewarded with a couple of crisp, well-aimed shots. Then the fight is over, and the two professional brawlers, locked in deadly battle just a moment earlier, embrace like old friends and retire to their corners to await the decision.

 

It's small-time professional boxing in San Jose, barely hanging on, mostly overlooked and, most recently, ratted by the death of a young lightweight named Rico Velazquez. As is usually the case when boxing is shaken by such tragedy, the death of Velazquez has triggered renewed calls for a ban on professional boxing.

 

But a couple miles away from the Civic, the locals -- mostly lean young Hispanics and blacks -- still gather daily to pursue their dreams of boxing glory and wealth, working out in a sheet metal building on a dusty stretch of East Hedding Street. What they call a gym is, in reality, more like a garage, with a raised ring at one end and a few punching bags at the other.

 

In the ring, sheathed in heavy protective gear around their loins and brains, the fighters take turns sparring, their trainers calling out instructions and encouragement. A somewhat beefy newcomer labors against his much thinner, quicker sparring partner. In the corner is Joey Amato, a short, thick man who tried his hand as a featherweight 25 years ago. "Come in underneath!" he calls out. "That's it."

 

After a couple of blows land on his belly, the newcomer's opponent responds with a quick flurry that backs up the heavier boxer. He looks to the corner for guidance and gets tagged on the nose. "Don't stop! Don't look at me!" barks Amato.

"We're getting him ready for his pro debut," Amato explains. "That's Lupe Gutierrez he's sparring." The current hot prospect in San Jose, featherweight Gutierrez has a 19-1 pro record and hopes for a title shot in the next year or two.

 

The bell rings, And the two fighters return to their corners. Amato's protege is looking ragged. "You're doing better, but you can't look at me for help" the veteran advises. "Now go back out there. Let's see what you can do." The bell rings and the boxer is out to face a new, fresh opponent.

 

" That's my kid -- Joey, Jr. We call him JJ." Gutierrez comes over to talk with Amato. "What do you think, Lupe?" Will he be ready in October or November?"

 

JJ lumbers around the ring for another three minutes, comes back to the corner with a look of exhaustion on his face. "You're doing good, JJ. Just one more round," his father encourages. "Let's go."

 

Joe Amato has seen it all in his years around the sweet science. "We get a lot of kids in here who think they want to be boxers. But then we let them put the gloves on. After they get beat up, we don't ever see them again," he says.

 

The death of Velazquez is on everybody's mind, and the uneasiness of those in the gym over the death is not helped by the presence of a journalist. "It's unfortunate ' Amato says of the tragedy, "but those things happen. Do you think I'd let my kid box if I thought it was dangerous?"

 

At this gym, the fighters wear headgear, but Amato isn't so sure that fans would accept it for pro fights. "I don't think it would make that much difference," he says, explaining that serious injuries most often occur when a fighter falls and hits the back of his head on the canvas.

 

Reconsidering, Amato adds, "Maybe it would -- if the state commission told us we had to use headgear, I wouldn't care. But the people want to see knockouts. They won't accept headgear."

 

Ernie Sanchez, a local promoter, shakes his head when asked about headgear. "The public won't accept it. If you think we're having trouble getting people to come see fights now, what do you think would happen if they wore headgear?"

 

But would it reduce the risks? "No -- well maybe -- probably a little," Sanchez equivocates as he considers the problem.

And then there's Eddie DeVaughn, the gym attendant, a balding black man with a slight paunch and a slow gait. He, too, is a former fighter, and the words roll out of his mouth softly and indistinctly. "It's unfortunate," he mumbles about the Civic Auditorium ring death.

 

Inside the ring, the universe is reduced to one of its simplest cliches: man-to-man in a fight for survival. Of course, there are the gloves, the referee and a set of rules that, like the ropes, limit the scope of the encounter (you can neither run away nor kick a guy between the legs), but in the final analysis, boxing is very simple. In the fighter's mind, it's hit or be hit. That is its appeal, its mystique and, to the critics of the sport, its horror.

 

Yet, most boxers are born in poverty; many are ghetto or barrio dwellers deprived of opportunities or hope, faced with the grim realities of drugs and crime that run rampant in their neighborhoods. To them, the ring is eminently more fair than life itself. The odds of a non~white male being murdered in his lifetime are one in 28 (about eight times the rate for the general white population). The unemployment rate among youths ranges from 20 to 50 percent.

 

From the perspective of the typical 15-year~old looking for a glimmer of hope -- and not coincidentally, a healthy boost to the ego -- the risks of boxing pale in comparison to the dreams of wealth and fame and glory, which, while unlikely, provide the motivation to endure the hard work and sweat of serious training. Heavyweight champion Mike Tyson, after all, garnered $22 million for obliterating Michael Spinks in less than two minutes a couple months ago. For taking the blows, Spinks collected better than $13 million.

 

But most of it is dreams, of course. Gutierrez says he gets $1500 to $2000 for one of his fights -- not bad for a night's work, but not so hot when you train incessantly and only fight six times a year. "You can't live on it," he says.

 

Still, there are club fighters who are happy for a payday, and their ineptitude and willingness to be battered for a profit makes one wonder. They are called "tomato cans" in fisticuff parlance. On a fight card in San Jose last month, one fighter had a pro record of nine wins and seven losses and another had a record of four wins and eight losses. Neither lasted through the second round. Chances are, they'll soon be back in the ring for another payday.

 

Should they be allowed to offer themselves up in such a fashion? Doctors have been saying for years that boxing is a brutal sport and have called for its abolition. Besides the deaths (two in Northern California in the last five years, 500 worldwide since 1918) there are the injuries to consider. Half of all pro boxers, the doctors say, show signs of permanent brain damage by the time they reach age 40.

 

But, boxers contend, all sports are dangerous. "Every time there's somebody hurt in boxing," says Gutierrez, "there's a big outcry. They want to ban it. But look at all the other sports where people get hurt all the time. Hockey, horse racing, auto racing -- all those sports, people get hurt a lot. But every time there's another injury in those sports, people just keep quiet; they don't make a big thing about it. When it happens in boxing they want to ban it -- because of the object of boxing."

Gutierrez is soft-spoken, thoughtful, intelligent and patient as he answers questions and dresses to go home to a wife and nine-month-old baby. But he is unapologetic about the change that comes over him when he is boxing -- his acknowledgement of the "object of boxing."

 

"I'm just a totally different person when I get in the ring," he says. "When I get in there, I just block everything out of my mind and the feeling that I have inside is to get this guy out of there as soon as possible. I want to destroy him. That's the way I feel. I look right through him. I don't care who he is. That's the way it's been, especially my last fight. I just had it in my mind that I was going to walk right through this guy."

 

This is the brutal bottom line of boxing, the ugly truth of a young man pushing hard for a shot at a world boxing title, his body be damned. Perhaps he is less naive about the game than many, but men don't become boxer by accident. It is a choice they make and live with through the pain of training, the infrequently acknowledged fear, the physical pain that comes from being clobbered by an opponent bent on destruction, and the wounds to the ego every time a jab or an uppercut connects or a decision goes against them. They may be fools, but they are willing fools.

 

Those of us who don't box -- even if we watch -- cannot ever understand it. But as we hurl ourselves down the freeway like suicidal maniacs, poison ourselves with tainted water, tainted air and edibles of questionable health value and drive ourselves to mental and physical exhaustion in pursuit of financial goals, suddenly, the dream of a $22 million payday doesn't seem so foolish after all.

 

Reprinted from San Jose Metro, December 1988